December 19, 2002
"Compulsory education is about compulsion not education"

There has been the mother of all comment battles concerning a posting yesterday by David Carr on samizdata, on the subject of the jailed mother of two truanting girls:

A mother-of-two has been jailed for failing to prevent her daughters from playing truant from school.

The Brighton woman was sentenced to seven days in prison and is only the second parent in the country to be jailed because her children skipped lessons.

Says David:

I am at a loss to understand how these two children, or the society of which they are a part, have anything to gain from being forced back into a situation where they are likely to be nothing except sullen and resentful prisoners? Very few people take the view that forcing human beings to work in state-owned factories on government-mandated projects will be in any way beneficial yet nearly everybody is entrenched in the dogmatic belief that doing the very same thing to human beings under the age of 18 will be nothing but beneficial.

This is an orthodoxy to which I once held myself: education is good, but children don't realise this. Therefore prescribed and generally agreed packages of learning must be forced on them for their own good. Is this true? I must confess that I have no ready alternatives available nor any glib answers on what parents should do instead. But I do know that I am increasingly unsettled by noxious enforcements of the kind reported above and by the quiet, persuasive ideas of people like Alice Bachini.

Compulsory education is about compulsion not education. It is a received wisdom to which I am finding it increasingly difficult to subscribe and which I believe should be revisited and re-examined at a systemic level.

The comments that this posting provoked are as contrary and as impassioned as any on samizdata that I can remember. For instance, Peter Cuthbertson:

I realise this won't move you one iota, but when this happened last time, both the truants in question started attending school again, and the mother admitted that making her face her responsibilities in such a way was the right thing to do.

If you have a principled objection to compulsory education, this won't change your mind. But clearly plenty of good can be derived from such rulings. I hope to see more of them.

"SmilinK" agrees:

Asking children if they *want* to go to school is insane. No one wants to go somewhere where they are forced to work, where they are judged by the results of said work, and where negative consequences ensue for poor effort. It's always easier to sit at home and watch the tube. Compulsory education prevents people from making that most erroneous choice, through ignorance or sloth. …

To let children decide for themselves, with their still-growing brains and total inability to plan ahead, would be truly immoral. Not to mention the degradation of their lives as a result.

Mike Peach:

All a child needs is a desire to learn. All that school does from day one is tell children not to have a desire to learn but to do as they are told. …

I despair of your attitude. Instead of asking the question "Do you want to go to school?" ask them if they want to learn and the answer will be resounding "Yes". That is until they have been to school and had the desire to learn knocked out of them.

I could go on and on but unfortunately the only way you will see the light is to take the "school" out of yourself.

By the way, a year ago I would have agreed with your view. However, having had my son out of school for that time now and watched him grow and develop into a rational, independent and free spirited individual I can confirm that "school" is nothing but a confidence trick and a totally illogical one at that.

And so it goes on, and on and on. Something tells me the various teams aren't going to convince one another. For what it's worth, the dominant opinion seemed to favour compulsory education, but to oppose state provision. Peach and Bachini versus the Rest. This seems to be emerging as the pattern in this corner of the blogosphere, with the surprise switch by Carr being the one change.

Me? For the moment my attitude is: Man Who Sit On Fence See Further. I'm thinking about it. Because I'm sorry, but I see genuine merit in both teams.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:13 PM
Category: Parents and children